The month of
October began so well for Jeff Tedfordís Golden Bears. The Bears
were fresh off their coronary-inducing win in Eugene over the
highly ranked Oregon Ducks, their first win at Oregon in two
decades. Cal, 5-0 on the season, had what appeared to be a well
times bye week that allowed the banged up Bears to rest for the
second half of what would surely be a historic season. Cal would
rise to #2 in the nation before it took the field for its sixth
game of the year. The Bears hadnít seen such heights since the
6th game of the season jarring news spread through sections of
California Memorial Stadium. #1 LSU had lost. If Cal managed to
hold serve against a solid but unspectacular Oregon State team
then the Bears would have gone from a 1 win team to number 1 in
the country in less than 7 seasons. Alas, it was not meant to
be. The Bears lost that game on the final play and their losing
quickly snowballed. Their historic season became a historically
horrific one. Cal went from 5-0 and #2 in the nation to 6-6 and
needing help at the end of the last day of the regular season
just to make a bowl game. How did things go so horribly wrong?
What caused Calís epic collapse (hereafter referred to as the
How was Cal
winning in the first place? What immediately changed?
were a legitimate top five team. They had solidly beaten
Tennessee, a team that would go on to win the SEC East. They had
the aforementioned win in Eugene against a Ducks team that would
find themselves ranked #2 in the nation late in the season until
a collapse of their own caused primarily by a season ending
injury to their quarterback, Heisman frontrunner Dennis Dixon.
This was not the 2005 Bears who had reached the top 10 by
starting the season ranked and beating up on a desert tray of
opponents for five weeks. Calís ranking was legit.
Bears were winning by playing in a way that loosely resembles a
football version of Don Nelsonís Golden State Warriors (as an
aside, I never thought Iíd see the day when the Warriors were
the best team I followed). Relying on speed and athleticism, the
Bears made up for being outplayed up front with big plays, a
high scoring offense, and a mediocre defense that excelled at
started when the Bears stopped winning the turnover battle. The
5-0 Bears were among the nationís leaders in turnover
differential. They caused more than 2 more turnovers than they
committed per game. The Bears that finished 1-6 reversed that
Bears were winning, they were scoring a lot of points. It wasnít
a big problem to allow 25 Ė 30 points when scoring 45. It became
a much bigger problem when the turnover differential flipped,
the big plays stopped coming, and the Cal side of the scoreboard
now only showed half of what it used to.
games are won in the trenches. This is a fundamental tenant of
football and yet one that is often overlooked by fans. If you
want to know what makes Tom Brady put up such gaudy numbers,
just take a look at how clean his jersey is. Rich Gannon went
from career journeyman to NFL MVP because he got impeccable
protection. Below we look at the 2007 Cal Bearsí mediocre line
play and other causes of the mediocre season.
defensive line spent much of the season getting pushed back into
its own linebackers. The basis of Calís defense under
coordinator Bob Gregory is to stop the run and force teams to
complete a large number of short yardage passes to move down the
field and score, with the theory being that sometime the
opposing team is bound to give up a sack or throw an
interception. Plus itís hard to consistently pick up first downs
when youíre in 3rd and 7 all the time. But this yearís Cal
defensive line didnít come close to stopping the run nor did
they pressure the passer. They didnít make tackles behind the
line of scrimmage or anywhere else for that matter.
defense has been putrid much of this season. Championship teams
stop the run. This yearís #1 going into the championship game is
Ohio State; the Buckeyes are 4th in the nation in yards per
carry (ypc) allowed. OSU gives up 2.5 ypc on the season. Their
opponent, LSU, is 20th giving up 3.1 ypc. Last yearís national
champion, Florida, gave up 2.8 ypc which placed them 7th in the
Cal gives up
3.9 ypc which doesnít even break the top 50 in the 119 team D1A.
This is the latest result of a degrading Cal defensive line.
Last yearís Bears gave up 3.7 ypc. The 2005 Bears yielded 3.3
ypc. The 2004 Golden Bears were 7th in the nation at 2.6 ypc
allowed. Not coincidentally, that 2004 team finished the regular
season ranked #4 in the country. The 2004 team had run stuffing
stud defensive tackles Lorenzo Alexander and Brandon Mebane. As
Alexander and then Mebane moved on to the NFL, Calís run defense
suffered a precipitous decline. Alexander and Mebane were never
replaced. This yearís abomination of a defensive line featured a
number of ďhybridĒ defensive linemen who moved between end and
tackle, ably manning neither position.
problems extended well beyond rush defense. Cal ranked an
abysmal 76th in the nation in sacks per game and a pathetic
110th in tackles for a loss per game. Both marks were dead last
in the PAC10. While defense, like every part of football, is a
team effort, these deficiencies can mostly be laid at the feet
of the defensive line.
defensive line should be the source of a teamís pass rush. The
top 22 players in sacks per game were defensive linemen. 5
different PAC10 schools were represented in the top 22. Cal was
not one of those schools. One quarter of Calís sacks came from a
linebacker, Zach Follett. Follett missed two games and parts of
others with a neck injury. Unfortunately Follett was the teamís
only pass rushing threat. The Cal defensive line had a total of
10 sacks on the season, led by Tyson Alualuís 2.5.
just quarterbacks on pass plays; Calís defensive line couldnít
tackle anyone behind the line of scrimmage. Maybe it was because
they never got past the line of scrimmage. Nationally, twenty of
the top 25 players in tackles for a loss per game were defensive
linemen. Unfortunately, only one of the top 100 players in the
nation this statistical category was a Cal Bear (Follett) and he
wasnít a defensive lineman. Calís diminutive cornerback SydíQuan
Thompson had 3 TFL. That was more than frequent defensive line
starters like Matthew Malele (1.5 TFL) and Mika Kane (2.0). In
fact, only two Cal defensive linemen had more TFL than Thompson:
Cody Jones (5.0) and Tyson Alualu (3.5).
went further than just tackles for a loss. Calís defensive line
just flat didnít tackle anyone anywhere. The teamís leading
tackler was a defensive back. The teamís 5 leading tacklers were
3 linebackers, a safety, and a cornerback. A cornerback should
not have more tackles than every defensive lineman on the
roster. Thompson, the aforementioned 5í10 180 pound cornerback,
had 21 more tackles than the leading tackler on the defensive
line (Alualu) and more than double the tackles of the second
leading tackler on the defensive line (Kane).
man-up situations, 4th downs, Cal was atrocious. The Bears were
tied for 99th in preventing 4th down conversions.
only plays 11 players at a time. Of the top 11 tacklers on the
team, only one was a defensive lineman. Thatís just pathetic.
Malele was called the senior leader of the defensive line. Chris
Conte was a true freshman part time starter cornerback. Conte
had exactly twice as many tackles as Malele. Something is very
wrong with that reality.
2. Offensive Line
of the offensive line has been more subtle and harder to track
with readily available statistics. However, the decline is very
real and is a substantial reason for the offenseís struggles.
the attention paid to Tedfordís quarterbacks, his offenses have
always been balanced and have usually featured quite a bit of
power running. At its height, Calís offensive line paved the way
not only for a first round NFL draft pick quarterback but also
for a dominant running game. Led by mammoth steamrollers like
Ryan OíCallahan, the 2004 Cal offensive line blew opponents off
the ball. That season Cal led the nation with 6.1 ypc. In 2005
Cal had a frequently inept passing attack which allowed teams to
load up on the running game but the line still dominated to the
tune of 5.9 ypc which placed Cal 2nd in the nation behind only
USCís Heisman backfield and ahead of Vince Young, Cedric Benson,
and the rest of the national champion Texas Longhorns.
The 2007 Cal
Bears attained a respectable 4.8 ypc, which placed them 21st in
the country. However, respectable is not the standard to which
coach Michalczikís offensive lines strive. This is especially
true when considering that Cal came into the season with a
highly touted passing game (featuring Heisman hopeful Desean
Jackson, 3 time conference player of the week quarterback Nate
Longshore, and what some called the best core of wide receivers
in the nation) which should have allowed for more running room
as defenses keyed on the pass.
blocking weakness of Calís line was especially apparent in short
yardage situations, particularly near the goal line. Time after
time Cal would try to pound out the 1 needed yard and time after
time Cal would be stopped short. On the season Cal was in a 13
way tie for 56th in the country in 4th down conversion
percentage. For Cal, many of these attempts came in 4th and
short and 4th and goal situations. Cal simply could not cash in.
Cal also had issues with 3rd down conversions, finishing 38th in
the nation and almost as close to dead last as to first. The
third down statistic shows not only a failure to pick up 3rd
downs but also a failure to pick up sufficient yardage on 1st
and 2nd downs in order to set up manageable 3rd down situations.
Schoettenheimer has said that if you canít get one yard when you
need it, you donít deserve to win the game. Cal has been in that
one yard situation many times this season, especially during the
second half collapse, and seems to have failed more often than
not. That is on the offensive line.
argue that pass protection was where the Cal offensive line
excelled. The raw sack statistics back up that claim. Cal
finished tied for 5th in the nation in sacks allowed per game.
Some would say that this stat is even more remarkable due to the
fact that Cal spent much of the season with a banged up and
immobile quarterback, Nate Longshore. However, I believe the
opposite to be true. Longshore is one of the main reasons for
the low number of sacks allowed and that the pass protection was
nowhere near as good as this statistic makes it seem.
superb at not getting sacked. Be it changing pass protections
pre-snap, stepping away from rushers, breaking the grasp of
would-be sackers, or simply throwing the ball away instead of
taking a sack, Longshore knows how to not go down with the ball
unless absolutely necessary. This observation is backed up by
looking at sack statistics with Longshore in the game against
similar stats when his backup, the mobile Kevin Riley, is under
center. Longshore started and played the vast majority of 11
games this season. In those 11 games he took a total of 6 sacks.
Four of Longshoreís opponents ranked in the top 15 in the
country in sacks per game so he wasnít exactly facing Calís pass
rush. Riley played the entirety of one game (against one of the
best pass rushes in the country) and a series or two of another
(against the not-so-fearsome pass rush of Louisiana Tech) and
took 4 sacks. On the season Longshore took one sack every 63
pass attempts; Riley took one every 9 pass attempts. Riley is
easily the more mobile quarterback and thus should be able to
run away from tacklers. Yet Riley gets sacked seven times as
often as Longshore. The true pass blocking performance of the
Cal offensive line is probably somewhere in between the sack
rates of the two quarterbacks. Unfortunately I was not able to
find any statistics on quarterback hurries and other measures of
pass rush beyond sacks that could lend more insight.
to this puzzle is the issue of max protect packages. Coach Jeff
Tedford puts great value on protecting his quarterbacks and will
go to max protect even if it means only having two eligible
receivers running routes on a pass play. Many coaches do not
protect their quarterback at all costs like this and as a result
Calís sacks allowed statistics are somewhat skewed.
Calís offensive line was not a weakness but not a strength. It
was nowhere near the dominant unit of years past. In years past
the offensive line could single-handedly win games. In one
memorable example (Cal hosting Oregon in 2004) Cal trailed at
halftime and had no healthy receivers remaining. That day at
halftime the offensive line went to coach Tedford and asked for
the opportunity to win the game. Cal pounded the football for
much of the second half and pulled out the win. In the second
half of this season, every time the offensive line has been
given the chance to win the game they have failed.
3. The Secondary
secondary was another unit that was another unit that failed to
make plays. Time and time again they failed to look back at the
football and were always looking to make the tackle after the
catch rather than trying to prevent the catch or, better yet,
intercept the pass. Maybe it had to do with all the times they
had to tackle running backs. Only one Bear at any position had
more than a single interception on the season Ė Hampton with 2.
Cal had a meager 10 interceptions on the season, placing them in
a tie for 86th in the country. Calís secondary produced a
pathetic 6 interceptions. Nationally, 24 defensive backs had at
least that many interceptions on their own. Cal also allowed 16
touchdowns through the air and had the 56th ranked pass
efficiency defense in the country. Part of this was due to a
lack of pass rush, part due to defensive backs having to worry
way too much about stopping the run, but a good chunk is because
of big cushions and a lack of plays on the ball.
One of the
core principles of Jeff Tedfordís offense is ball control.
Running backs coach Ron Gould has told his charges that dropping
the ball is akin to dropping their own mothers. Cal quarterbacks
are similarly drilled on not making game turning mistakes. Yet
Cal was in the bottom half of college football in both fumbles
lost and total turnovers lost.
stopping the run, generating turnovers is perhaps the most
fundamental element of Bob Gregoryís defenses. The Bears
finished in a 13 way tie for 53rd in the nation in generating
turnovers. Cal was actually strong in recovering fumbles,
getting at least one in every game except against UW (and in
that game, Cal did recover a fumble but the referees
conveniently called a lateral that went 4 yards backwards an
incomplete pass) but was weak on interceptions which is where
most turnovers tend to come.
about every football team out there, Cal suffered a number of
injuries to key players. Star receiver and punt returner Desean
Jackson spent the first several weeks of the season fighting a
thumb injury. Defensive tackle Matt Malele missed a few games
with injury. Defensive end Rulon Davis managed to play in only
five games due to a number of injuries. Star linebacker Zach
Follett missed two games and parts of others with a neck
stinger. Other part time players like running back and special
teams coverage team specialist Jahvid Best and tight end Cameron
Morrah missed time with various injuries and most of the
regulars were banged up at one time or another.
position devastated by injury was placekicker. Cal was counting
on field goal kicking being a strength this season with Tom
Schneider entering his 4th year as the starting kicker.
Schneider had been below par for his first two seasons before
developing into a very reliable kicker his junior season, going
13/15 on kicks of less than 50 yards and 15/20 overall.
Schneider was on track to become Calís all-time leading scorer
if his senior season went according to plan. Alas, Schneider
suffered a mysterious muscle pull during warm-ups before the
first game of the year and never overcame the injury. This put
the onus on the foot of fourth year walk-on Jordan Kay, who
started well but by midseason was more likely to miss than make
anything but the shortest of field goals. With all the close
games Cal suddenly found itself in after its 5-0 start, the
inability to make field goals or to be able to try them with any
confidence proved costly.
only two injuries which coincided with Calís sudden and drastic
downfall. One was to rover Marcus Ezeff, who had made the game
clinching hit in Eugene to beat the Ducks and vault Cal to 5-0
and #2 in the nation and did not play again until seasonís end.
The other injury, the one focused on by fans and media alike,
was to quarterback Nate Longshore.
suffered an ankle injury near the end of the Oregon game, an
injury that was more severe than Cal let on for much of the 2nd
half of the season. After being held out of the Oregon State
game (which gave him 3 weeks between games), Longshore came back
and played well against UCLA until the final minutes. As the
season wore on, Longshoreís performances followed a similar
script: he would do well early and then continue to do well as
long as he wasnít hit much. As he took a pounding (but rarely a
sack, he managed to avoid those even with the bum ankle) he was
no longer able to push off and he would make some
uncharacteristically erratic throws.
injury was not the root cause of Calís fubar season. It was the
tipping point. With a healthy Longshore, Cal was able to get the
ball into the hands of its numerous playmakers and avoid
turnovers. With Longshore hurt or out, Cal could no longer
simply outscore and out-not-make-mistakes opponents and the
fundamental flaws in the team came to the forefront.
line is that regardless of who starts at quarterback, running
back, and wide receiver next year, Cal has to greatly improve in
the trenches and the secondary if it is to have a national
contender that is not easily tipped back to mediocrity.
comments? email us at